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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Karzai Relies on Charisma, Cash

KABUL, Afghanistan -- For a man occupying a post that has led almost inevitably in recent years to exile or execution, Hamid Karzai exudes a surprising confidence.

Karzai, the chairman of the caretaker government installed after the Taliban's collapse, blithely tosses out the gruesome anecdotes of presidential succession: Najibullah, disemboweled and hanged from a street pole. Mohammed Daoud, shot by his own guards as he sat on a palace couch. Noor Mohammed Taraki, smothered with a pillow.

"A little civility is what Afghanistan needs," Karzai said recently at his office in the presidential palace. "If I had guns, people would hate me. Who wants guns?"

It is with such assurance that Karzai presides over this roiling and ruined country, now the focus of a Western-backed experiment to hatch a democracy where terror and tyranny ran loose for nearly a quarter-century.

His task is to provide the bridge between Afghanistan's previous rulers, the deposed mullahs of the Taliban, and a more lasting provisional government intended to lay the groundwork for nationwide elections.

As he enters the second half of his six-month term, Karzai has cut a dynamic figure in Kabul and the West. With his fluent English and dazzling attire, he eclipsed expectations that he was merely a colorless stand-in for the Western coalition that ousted the Taliban.

With trips to 15 capitals, Karzai has helped sustain interest in his country at a time when it might have begun to wane. He and his aides are busy devising a plan to spend $4.5 billion in promised foreign aid on everything from hospitals to highways and schools.

Yet for all Karzai's cheeriness, there are growing signs that the interim government over which he presides is a troubled enterprise, sustained almost entirely by his charisma and Western cash.

Turmoil that could ultimately threaten his government, from ethnic strife to battles among warlords, percolates nearly everywhere outside the capital.

In the north, two of the country's most powerful warlords, General Abdul Rashid Dostum and General Ostad Atta Mohammed, continue to clash as their armies struggle to outmaneuver each other for supremacy. Across western and northern Afghanistan, Iran exerts its own influence, funneling cash and guns to its local prot?g?s.

Indeed, outside Kabul there seems little evidence of a central government at all.

Without a functioning telephone network or highway system, rural outposts are almost completely isolated. Civil servants in nearly every province have gone unpaid since Karzai's government took office. Taxes, where they are collected at all, appear only rarely to reach the government's coffers.

Karzai's government has been unable to provide basic security, and soldiers nominally in its employ are often the agents of chaos.

Soldiers under the command of General Dostum, the deputy defense minister, have been blamed for expelling thousands of Pashtuns from their homes across northern Afghanistan. The checkpoints that used to make the fighters known as mujahedin notorious for rape, murder and extortion again block roads across the country.

By contrast, Kabul is resurgent. Since the interim government came to power on Dec. 22, money and people have flowed in from the West, giving the ruined city a dynamism and sense of hope it has not felt in years.

Nearly 5,000 foreign troops have made the city safer than many Western cities. With help from the United Nations, the government ministries are humming with purpose.

Indeed, Karzai often appears to be less a head of state than a mayor. In his three months in power, Karzai has ventured only occasionally into the provinces, which, with their mud-brick huts and ox carts, sometimes seem separated from Kabul by centuries.

Karzai acknowledges the capital's, and his own, remoteness from the rest of the country. But he insists that his interim government inspires the loyalty of Afghans everywhere.

"We don't have contact with the provinces, but that's not same thing as not having power," he said. "When we call a governor and tell him to come, he is here the next day."

But Karzai's breezy style has begun to trouble some of his Western friends and even those in his own government, who worry that beneath his exuberant surface he lacks the will to confront the country's problems or his own internal enemies.

"Sometimes he is too optimistic," a senior member of the interim government said. "We think he should be stronger, but he has never been in such a position before."

All around Karzai, the maneuvering to succeed him has already begun. Abdul Rahman, his handpicked aviation minister, was murdered at the Kabul airport by a mob on Feb. 14. Karzai denounced the killing as a conspiracy within his own government, and three men, including the deputy intelligence minister, were arrested.